Dubbed the Sheik and the Engineer by the Italian press, the two men - Bassam Ayachi, 63, a Syrian-born with French citizen, and Marcel Gendron, 34, a French engineer converted to Islam - were already being held in prison in Bari, Italy on charges of organizing illegal immigration.
Investigators placed microphones inside the prison cell they shared.
According to the Italian paper La Repubblica, apparently aware that someone might try to listen, the men spoke in low voices and interrupted phrases and would turn up the volume of the TV in their cell at crucial times. Nonetheless a pool of 14 translators helped decipher the taped conversations in Arabic and French, which investigators say show the men were actively planning terrorist attacks in Europe – with talk of "a ton of grenades" and a plane attack on Charles De Gaulle airport.
Particularly significant passages, according to Bari prosecutors' arrest warrant, obtained by Italian media:
December 14, 2008:
Gendron: "…There will be more…you have to leave…"
Gendron: "…We can do it…"
Ayachi: "…Either all or nothing…and what do we do…if the other fights…"
Gendron: "…We strike..we will do it…we will be everywhere…"
Ayachi: "…Of course, yes…"
Gendron: "…So, quick…"
Ayachi: "…I'll do the plane…strike the master…"
Gendron: "…I'll hit De Gaulle…"
Ayachi: "…we will hit there…"
Gendron: "…Let's widen up…that's all…"
Ayachi: "…in the evening…when there will be a lot of people…"
Gendron: "…I did the investigation…maybe you want to back out…"
Ayachi: "…This is all there is for peace…"
Again, on January 25th, 2009 mention of using a plane:
A: "…We will do this, it is…a plane…"
G: "…A French plane…"
A: "…We will exterminate the others, I have to go exterminate them…you know of the millions of them leave…strike in the whole world…"
Explosives Mentioned in Inmate Conversation
The explosives are mentioned in a conversation with another inmate:
Inmate: "…don't worry…there was the other day…there, where I had gone, he offered us a ton of grenades for 5 euros a piece…at Riyadh we will go to the club…the other time you said there was no time to go to Iraq or other…"
G: "…did you see there…but afterwards he pays…"
A: "…in Paris you make money…we can explode once we have brought it, but we must make it unattainable for…"
Investigators believe that these conversations and many others show the two men were actively planning future attacks.
Stefano D'Ambruoso, one of Italy's most experienced and respected anti-terrorism judges told La Repubblica that the men arrested in Bari "are the two most dangerous individuals to be arrested in the last three years."
"This operation is extroardinarily important," he said, "it shows that the controls in place in Europe work, and that no one can get away with these things any more."
Ayachi and Gendron will be questioned by the judge who had them arrested on these new charges on May 14th in the Bari prison.
In November 2008 the pair were stopped in the Italian port town where they had disembarked from a ferry from Greece. A search of their vehicle turned up 5 illegal immigrants – three Palestinians and two Syrians – who were shipped back to Greece while Ayachi, and his apparent disciple, Gendron were taken to jail.
A search of their vehicle turned up an assortment of fundamentalist Islamic propaganda on DVDs and in particular on 6 pen drives belonging to the pair. Ayachi, it turned out, was the imam of a Brussels mosque and the two men reportedly had links to at least a dozen other people who were arrested last December in France and Belgium and are also under investigation for international terrorism and training and recruiting for terrorist purposes.
French police sources told the Italian news agency ANSA that anti-terrorism police in France and Belgium knew Ayachi and Gendron, who they suspect were involved in and organization recruiting and sending volunteers to fight in the jihad or holy war in Afghanistan.
While investigators started going through the files on the pen drives, they also placed microphones in the prison cell Ayachi and Gendron share in the Bari prison.
Ornella Romito, the lawyer for Ayachi and Gendron, told La Repubblica that his clients "are calm and serene, and confident they will be able to show they have nothing to do with the things they are accused of."